Hand plucking DNA strand apart with tweezers

Behind the controversy of the Chinese baby experiment there’s a technology that could cure life-ending diseases

If we believe the hype, CRISPR technology has the potential to cure all hereditary genetic diseases

With hundreds of people worldwide crammed into this week's Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing, and thousands of people tuning in online, few spectators expected the shocking news shared by rogue Chinese scientist He Jiankui. In front of an expectant audience, the American-trained biophysicist revealed that hed used CRISPR technology on a pair of baby girls. If what He says is true, the girls will live their lives without the risk of contracting HIV.

The issue for many scientists is that He has been breaking numerous scientific codes and ethics. Organisers of the event didnt know, for example, that he was going to be discussing work undertaken on human embryos. It wasnt just mainstream media that was taken aback, the science community was too.

Since then, the world has been questioning whether it was right for He to do what he did. In some senses, it is hugely worrying. We dont know exactly how it could affect the girls long-term. In the best case scenario, the girls live normal healthy lives, without the risk contracting HIV.

If this turned out to be the case, CRISPR could prove itself a tool in eliminating some of the worst hereditary diseases we face. At this stage though, it seems a massive risk.

CRISPR history

CRISPR technology has been a point of discussion in the science community since 2012. Since then, the potential of CRISPR has seemingly become ever-greater as gene editing has become cheaper and faster. The reoccurring point contention are the ethical implications of using the technology in humans, especially for the gene-editing of human embryos.

Critics publically decry that it could be the start of so-called designer babies.This cant be ruled out entirely, though for the vast majority of serious scientists CRISPR is a technological solution to incurable, or life-critical hereditary diseases. From cancer to blood disorders, cystic fibrosis to Huntingtons, embracing CRISPR could save the lives of millions of people worldwide.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR, often called CRISPR-Cas9, is a system that can target genetic code editing DNA at specific locations. Using CRISPR, scientists modify genes in living cells to correct mutations at precise locations in order to alter, remove or displace the genetic causes of a disease. Hes experiment on HIV treatment did just this.

Scientists have been using CRISPR for research purposes for some time. Jennifer Doudna’s widely watched 2015 TED Talk brought the treatment to the forefront of public discussion and intrigue. He Jiankuis controversial use of CRISPR on living human DNA fired up controversy. Likewise, it is the first time weve seen it picked up by almost every major news outlet globally.

Some of the scientific community are excited to see it finally make the move from research to reality, whilst others are furious that such an experiment happened in the first place. The reason being: there are still uncertainties about using CRISPR in this way as it could be dangerous. An off-target genome edit has the potential to cause other diseases, such as cancer. Though significant evidence was presented at the summit in China, scientists are still angry that He ignored ethics.

But what of the other side of the coin? Could CRISPR really be a potential cure for hereditary diseases?

What diseases could CRISPR cure?

He Jiankui stated in his presentation that his use of CRISPR meets an unmet medical need.There is little doubt that removing the chance of a child contracting HIV is a potentially positive step. Proponents of CRISPR also believe that its precision gene editing capability alter our DNA could prevent other diseases – even afflictions such as blindness could be cured. It is why some scientists have backed He.

Mention Cancer, HIV or Cystic Fibrosis and most of the public would agree that if it could be cured, we should do everything we possibly can to embrace the technology. In a recent article by Labiotech, seven diseases are said to be potentially curable using CRISPR. These are: Cancer, Blood disorders, Blindness, AIDS, Cystic Fibrosis, Muscular dystrophy and Huntingtons.

Theres little doubt that preventing these diseases would be a huge step forward for science and humanity. But realistically, research into CRISPR is nowhere near developed enough for it to be employed widely and openly. After all theres a reason why many scientists are so angry about Hes experiments.

With negative immune system reactions, and the potential of long-term damage, CRISPR is not a therapy that should be experimented with lightly.

Ultimately, however, we will always have the problem of not knowing how human beings will react through CRISPR therapy. Whether well ever see it applied in conventional medicine settings is a question that many are starting to ask themselves.

Some state it is just a matter of time before it is used more extensively, yet for others, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. He’s baby experiment opened up the debate in the world of gene editing and the therapy has gotten the whole world talking. It will be extremely interesting to see which direction we choose to go in…

For more fascinating insights into the ever-changing world of the life sciences sector, stay tuned to all SRG Blogs. 

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